A certain Pickathon first-timer texted me upon arrival Saturday evening, a bit bewildered. He was there exclusively to see Jeff Tweedy, and hadn't acclimated to the surroundings. "My favorite thing is all the dudes in Wilco shirts just as confused by everything as I am," he wrote. "It's like we all landed on an Ewok planet together and are like, 'Wait, a plate for $10? Oh, OK.'"
It's probably true. At most festivals, you walk in, quickly get the lay of the land, and you're more or less set. With Pickathon, there's so much emphasis on "the experience"—the camping, the reusable plates and cups, the different stage environments—it's hard to imagine an attendee spending only a few hours there and understanding why multi-year regulars, such as myself, rhapsodize over it so much.
Certainly, my acquaintance wasn't alone, especially this year—the combination of Tweedy, Beach House, Yo La Tengo, Ty Segall and the reunited Wolf Parade likely brought out a lot of newbies. As a result, Pendarvis Farm were just a little more squeezed, in the food lines and the barns and at the Woods Stage, which at their most crowded were even more claustrophobic than usual. But while this was the biggest iteration of the festival yet, it still mostly felt like Pickathon—that strange little Ewok planet in a music-festival solar system crowded with bloated giants, where food is served on bamboo dishware, bands play in barns and the crowd lives among the trees for four days. Trying to describe the experience to less-committed attendees invariably gets a bit squishy and mystical. All we can do is tell you about music. So here's the best of what we caught this weekend.
Best Comeback: Wolf Parade
Can you call it a reunion if a band never really broke up? Montreal's Wolf Parade took six years off between the release of 2010's underrated Expo 86 and their slew of summer '16 shows, with co-vocalists Spencer Krug (the yelpy one) and Dan Boeckner (the one who sounds like Springsteen drinking Stumptown Cold Brew stubbies all day) staying busy with what seems like 100 other projects. But something funny happened in the time they were away: as the idea of underground music become more focused on hip-hop and electronic music, Wolf Parade's nervy, anxious energy grew even more vital.
Seriously, guys—Wolf Parade played Pickathon like it was the last show on earth, the world collapsing in on itself as hundreds of sweaty 30-somethings shouted along to "I'll Believe in Anything." I was lucky enough to catch both sets, which were great in different ways. Friday night on the main stage was less fiery but certainly not tentative, with a setlist highlighting the band's more streamlined songs like "This Heart's on Fire" and "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts." Saturday on the Woods stage at 11 pm was a blistering, joyous party, cherry-picked anthems from Apologies to the Queen Mary and At Mount Zoomer quickly leading to both moshing and tearing up. Despite being the last great bastion of 2000s "indie rock," the band is not an artifact; they tossed in two punchy new songs during both sets, and played the older ones with a manic, locked-in energy that screams friendship more than nostalgia cash grab. Let's hope this return is for good. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
Best Use of Audience Members: Ty Segall & the Muggers
Pickathon Lifetime MVP Ty Segall was in fine form this year, leading his all-star garage rock band through two rockeous sets, including his now-customary 1 am destruction of the Galaxy Barn. In the Muggers, Segall is just a frontman, which is great because it gives him more time to engage with the crowd, roaming the stage to spit into the front row. At the barn he even brought up a girl named Shrimp to the stage to put on a spacesuit and "blast-off" into the galaxies, or at least the raging party just outside the barns doors. He said a lot of other weird nonsense, but I was too busy moshing to really take it in. (MM)
Best Afternoon Guitar Pop: Ultimate Painting
Wistful British band Ultimate Painting should always play outdoors in the afternoon. Though nothing groundbreaking, the band's sound—a choice combination of Velvet Underground and Teenage Fanclub tics—is perfectly suited for a festival like Pickathon, where you can grab a beer and join your friends on a blanket to bliss out. Before the weekend I had listened to a bit of group's 2015 record Green Lanes, and it's now certainly something I'll revisit soon soon—probably in my backyard. (MM)
Best Raising of the Dead: Adia Victoria
At the hottest point of the weekend—which, in comparison to the last three scorching years of Pickathon, wasn't that hot at all—Adia Victoria decided to hold a seance. Wearing a shimmering dress out of the Tina Turner Collection, the Southern gothic roots singer had spent her afternoon set at the Treeline Stage conjuring the spirit of the blues (and a little Nick Cave) out of waves of slow-moving distortion. Near the end, she decided to make contact with one ghost in particular. "As a poor black girl from Spartanburg, South Carolina, I was told I had no face and had no place and I came from nowhere, and it wasn't until I discovered the blues that I felt my roots and realized I did come from somewhere," she said, introducing a chilling cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues." "In a perfect world, he'd be here with us and he'd sing it for you," she said. In truth, he didn't seem too far away. MATTHEW SINGER.
Best Breakthrough: Margo Price
Pickathon loves a good throwback, and Margo Price's vintage country won the year much in the same way Leon Bridges' authentically antiquated soul set the festival abuzz in 2015. At the Treeline Stage and in the packed and humid Galaxy Barn, supported by an ace backing band, the Nashville singer-songwriter ran through selections from her Third Man Records debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter—and covers of Neil Young and George Jones—showcasing the grace, grit and Dollyesque twang that has her destined for bigger stages. And while the music is decidedly old-fashioned—if Jack White is going to release your record, it almost has to be—it is delivered without retro gimmickry, and with an effortlessness suggesting she hasn't just studied the country heroines of the past but absorbed their life force. (MS)
Best Old Reliable (Still): Thee Oh Sees
The Oh Sees are going to land on any list of superlative festival performances wherever they play—even with their ever-shifting lineups, they're the most consistent garage-rock band in the game. As a writer, though, that presents some challenges if you're seeing them a couple times a year. Everything I can say about their Saturday night set at the Woods Stage, I already said when I saw them at Treefort in March, with just a few situational tweaks. But it still bears repeating:
If you haven't seen Thee Oh Sees yet, you will. Maybe at
Pickathon in August at the Aladdin Theater in November, maybe tomorrow, maybe on a day you least expect. And when you do, it will look and sound like every Oh Sees show before it. Singer-guitarist John Dwyer will whip his hair around. He'll hold his guitar like a rifle. He'll talk shit about PBR. The band behind him—which actually could change at any point, but for now includes two drummers, for no other reason than the visual of two guys thrashing in tandem is rad—will blast out a relentless set of white-knuckled garage rock. And the crowd will go apeshit. Thursday Saturday night's show at El Korah Shrine the Woods Stage—an actual shriners hall stage in the woods, with bedazzled fezzes on display behind glass, kitschy Arabian art a wall of photos celebrating a century of old white men a canopy of tangled branches and hay bales as seats—was absolutely no different, right down to the "crowd goes apeshit" part. If you've seen one Oh Sees show, you've seen them all. And they're all great. (MPS)
Best of Portland: Blossom
Although she's often referred to in local media as an R&B singer, Trinidad-born vocalist Blossom revealed herself to be something closer to Portland's Sade—an artist perched at the intersection of soul, jazz and pure atmosphere. She's not a belter, preferring crystalline smoothness over full-throated testifying, and in the Galaxy Barn on Sunday afternoon, her set—augmented with textural saxophone and airy beats from producer Neill Von Tally—was just the deep-tissue massage I needed on the last day of the festival, especially when she tapped into her Carribean roots for the slinky reggae boiler "Black Magic Woman." (MS)
Best Anti-Frontman: Joe Casey of Protomartyr
Ever since Pickathon expanded its booking beyond folk and Americana, there's usually one act each year that looks a little out of place among the horses and hippie dancers of Pendarvis Farm, and this year it was caustic Detroit band Protomartyr. "We're not used to nice people and nature," frontman Joe Casey admitted from the Woods Stage. Dressed in a blazer and heavy sunglasses, Casey spent the show with a cup of beer in his hand, ranting into the mic with all the enthusiasm of a hungover office drone on the morning after the company Christmas party, while his whipped up an unlikely post-punk dance party among the hay bales. Casey's "anti-charisma," as it's been called, has inspired enough hyper-specific descriptions from critics that there's a whole blog dedicated to them—my personal favorite describes Protomartyr as "three scared teens who started a band with their alcoholic uncle." But after three days in a bubble of unrelenting positivity, I have to admit it was satisfying to have someone bring a little real-world cynicism to the festivities—even though he eventually confessed to finding the whole thing "pretty good." (MS)
Best Guitar Freakout: Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo
There are few things in life I enjoy more than watching Ira Kaplan lose his shit and completely annihilate his instrument. Hoboken indie lifers Yo La Tengo played acoustic in the woods but brought out the axe fire for the mainstage, with feedback-laden renditions of "Ohm" and "Nowhere Near" packed into an eclectic hour that ran through highlights of the band's 30-plus year recording career. (MM)
Best Chance To Miss Nels Cline: Jeff Tweedy
I've been a Wilco fan for, oh, 20 years now. For the first 15 years, I would've told you singer Jeff Tweedy was the one true reason to love the band. And yet, upon watching the frontman's intimate solo act at the Woods on Sunday night, I realized how much I've come to love noodle-happy guitarist Nels Cline. Tweedy was Tweedy, with beautiful, fragile songs delivered in a voice that cracks in all the right places, like a distressed wardrobe from West Elm. Watching him in the quiet woods, just a few feet from the stage, was certainly a great experience. But damn if I didn't miss those improvised solos from his fifth (and hopefully final) guitarist. Of course, I always bitch about any Wilco or Tweedy show until I digest the bootleg—that's probably what keeps me interested in them after all this time. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Best Singing In The Dark: Beach House
Baltimore dream-pop act Beach House closed out the main stage on Sunday night, and as the de facto headliner of the whole festival it was slightly disappointing. Not the band, mind you—Beach House did the Beach House thing, twisting serpentine guitar melodies with soft pitter-patter of old drum machines and the warmth of singer Victoria Legrand's voice. It was lovely. But the stage lighting left a lot to the imagination, as the band opened shrouded in darkness, with no lights on the performers except a stray blast of a bright strobe. I got a text from a friend asking if anyone was actually onstage or if it was a recording, which is a bummer. Beach House's perfect was born in the shadows, but it's tough to make an impression on tired festivalgoers when you can't see a thing. (MM)